Creating a taxonomy often begins with input from subject matter experts (SMEs) and by evaluating other taxonomies or thesauri already being used in the subject domain. An SME might be a software engineer, a help desk support operative, an accounts manager, a scientific researcher –  anybody with in-depth knowledge of the subject you are attempting to classify.

The goal is to create an information structure that different types of people — life learners, traditional students, teachers, and librarians — can peruse and know where to find or place content.

A typical taxonomy project for a scholarly publisher, policy clearinghouse, medical institution, or any other client with a technical vocabulary involves the input of a number of stakeholders.

SMEs need to be used in creation of a good taxonomy – without their knowledge you will miss the important detailed knowledge of the users. But they also need to be managed. Do not bring them into the process before you yourself have enough knowledge of the subject and the terms to truly understand their input.

The SME’s job is to review the evolving taxonomy or thesaurus from the perspective of an expert in the field. Taxonomists are knowledgeable about a plethora of topics, but even the best taxonomists can only gain a fraction of the necessary knowledge through research. SMEs are well acquainted with the state of research in the field, conversant with the current hot topics, familiar with the journal literature, and familiar with both the stable and fluctuating terminologies used by other practitioners in their discipline. Dealing with SMEs can be an excellent and productive experience.

A taxonomy is a living document that’s subject to constant revision and review, but at a certain point you have to call it complete and deliver the project. This is where your SMEs can help or hinder. They will in all likelihood want to make tweaks and more tweaks. It is important for you to set a schedule for SME reviews, including a timetable for providing material, getting feedback, integrating that feedback, and returning the revised taxonomy.

As SMEs in organizing and classifying principles of information management, it’s our job to keep in mind that users care only about what they need to get done. This perspective shifts focus from domain expertise to prioritizing user tasks. From there, domain expertise can fit nicely into the wider goals of taxonomy development.

Melody K. Smith

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in taxonomies, metadata, and semantic enrichment to make your content findable.